Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Not Getting Stepped on During the Dance of Intimacy

I recently spent a couple hours doing couples counseling with my wife (in this case, we were giving advice rather receiving it), and we spent most of the time unpacking a fresh, representative example of how things go off the rails for this couple. It was both illuminating and poignant in that you could easily follow how each person came to the same dynamic with different perspectives that compounded their challenge in navigating a tender moment well.

While it remains to be seen how well our session provided the players with sufficient insight and hope that they'll be able to more productively handle the next flare up—and there is always a next flare up—rather than sliding back into the unproductive pattern that motivated them to ask for help in the first place, I want to devote today's blog to laying out their story, as an excellent cautionary tale of how tangled and hurtful these tough moments can get—despite deep love and both players intending well!

Let's call our couple Pat & Chris. Pat has self-esteem issues and a tendency toward jealousy and feeling neglected when Chris spends time with others. Pat also feels inarticulate and less powerful in conversation with Chris.

Going the other way, Chris was raised to be afraid of conflict (bad things happened at home when Chris' parents fought) and has been doing considerable personal work to better recognize and articulate feelings—which is something Chris has never been all that great at, and Pat is encouraging Chris to work on. On top of this, Chris also has self-esteem issues and often feels that whatever they offer is not enough; that criticism is much more likely than praise. While Chris is aware that they have more personal work to do, they're starved for recognition for what they've accomplished and for the effort they're putting in.

With this background (I'm simplifying, but it's already sufficiently complicated for this story), here's the scene: Chris has been working at the office during the morning, and completes a major piece of work. Hurray! Chris takes some time off in the afternoon to relax and then comes home to Pat later in the afternoon, hoping to go out to dinner and celebrate. Chris is in a good space, yet walks in the door to find that Pat is upset. Pat is aware that Chris was spending time with someone else in the afternoon and has been stewing about why Chris didn't come straight home.

At first (remember, this is a tune they've danced to many times before), Chris responds pretty well. Setting aside the agenda of celebration, Chris hangs in there to listen to Pat's upset, recognizing how Pat might feel less special when Chris didn't bring the joy directly home. This wasn't easy for Chris—who was struggling to keep breathing in the unsafe world of high emotions and thought they were taking Pat into account in the invitation to go out for dinner. For all of that things started moving in a productive trajectory and Pat was responding positively to Chris' reassuring presence. Then all hell broke loose.

Chris' story is that Pat often prefers some private time to process a meltdown and re-center before engaging socially on more solid footing. With the idea that bringing home the food might work better than eating out and that it would take about 45 minutes to place the order and collect the food, Chris proposed to run this errand while Pat waited at home. This would simultaneously allow Pat the opportunity for some down time, and Chris could accept an invitation to have a celebratory beer with a friend (of the opposite sex) while the food was getting prepared.

While Chris thought they were offering a solution that could work for everyone, Pat was flabbergasted. How could Chris be so dense as to think that what was called for in response to Pat's voicing fears about not being wanted was to immediately propose to spend happy time with someone else? Duh! Pat felt that Chris just didn't get it, and it completely uprooted the tender shoots of healing that had sprouted during the first part of the conversation. Pat was in severe distress and felt hopeless.

In turn, Chris was devastated that all the work done to listen lovingly to Pat's distress had counted for nothing. All the good faith efforts made by Chris to balance what everyone wanted were turned into evidence of Chris' perfidy. By what sinister alchemy had that happened? Why do these conversations always go south?

This Way to the Egress
Trapped in the Not-So-Fun House of distorted mirrors, neither Pat nor Chris could find the exit. Luckily, Ma'ikwe and I had ideas.

—Don't project, ask
In the future, we encouraged Chris to ask Pat what they want in the moment (when looking for assurance). If Pat isn't sure (which will happen some of the time), Chris can make suggestions, trying to be as flexible as possible with Pat's answers. Chris fell into a trap by projecting what Pat would want. While this can work well if the projection is accurate, it was disastrous in the incident above.

—Speak from the heart, not the head
One of the delicacies of the exchange outlined above was that Pat reported that Chris had never apologized for their insensitive suggestion to have the celebratory beer while leaving Pat at home. Yet Chris thought they had apologized. Oops! When we carefully dismantled this bomb, it amounted to Chris doing the best they could in an uncomfortable situation, and Pat never feeling that Chris had reached across the gulf between them at the heart level. Chris had acknowledged that Pat was unhappy with what Chris had done, yet hadn't demonstrated to Pat's satisfaction that Chris had understood the impact it had on Pat.

This is a key issue in conflict work, making sure that all the stories and feelings have been accurately understood (not necessarily agreed with) by all the players before moving on to problem solving. There is a tendency—all the more common when people are uncomfortable with distress and want to get through it as quickly as possible—to simply assume that if you've given the other person air time and have heard their words, that they'll feel heard. It doesn't work that way. Reflect back the essence of what they shared and then ask if they feel heard, If they report no joy, do not pass Go and do not attempt to collect $200.

—Focus on relationship, not truth
In the conversation with the four of us (Pat, Chris, Ma'ikwe and me) it became apparent that Chris was focused on fairness; on not being taken advantage of. Ma'ikwe & I made the point that they'd be better off if their primary focus was on relationship first, making sure that neither proceeded with proposals (or demands) sooner than attending to reflecting accurately what each person's experience had been. Agreements that are pushed on people ahead of hearing at this foundational level tend to be brittle and not well followed.

Further, truth is relative. It's not at all uncommon for two stories of the same event to be wildly divergent, yet each advocate believes fervently in the veracity of their version. If you insist that yours prevails, this will undercut relationship, diminish trust, and ultimately be a hollow victory, confounding resolution. When relationships are precious, make sure you keep foremost in mind what the impact of your actions will be on your connections. This is not about selling out or soft-pedaling upset; it's about making sure you listen as fully and as deeply as you want to be heard. Sometimes there can be tussle over who leads and who follows, but that's not the key. What matters most is that everyone gets a turn and that no one is dancing without a partner.

• • •
While learning new steps always involves a certain amount of awkward self-consciousness, it's refreshing to hope that you can still pirouette with an old partner while finally learning how to miss each other's instep on the downbeat.

1 comment:

Koninda said...

I would be interested in hearing your thoughts, Laird, on one area of asymmetry in the interaction that you described. Recognizing that your description is condensed, it struck me that Chris is shown to have made several choices and suggestions, generally aimed at meeting both personal needs and Pat's. When problems are voiced by Pat, Chris makes an effort to find a solution that might improve things for both of them.

Pat is described as protesting/criticizing Chris's choices, and demanding that Chris earn forgiveness. Pat is not shown as looking for mutual solutions. If Chris is lucky, s/he may be able to get back to a neutral position, in Pat's eyes.

I think this pattern is reasonably common (and in some couples, partners may exchange roles on different topics). I'd like to hear your thoughts on how to improve communication in relationships, where the couple usually begins working on a problem only after one partner makes it clear that the other partner is already in the doghouse.